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SEARK, others ponder future of colleges

by I.C. Murrell | September 14, 2023 at 3:22 a.m.
Andrea Henderson, executive director of the Arkansas Community College Association, makes a presentation as Southeast Arkansas College President Steven Bloomberg looks on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023, inside the school's boardroom. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)

Southeast Arkansas College board trustees were confronted Wednesday with statistics that reveal waning public trust in higher education.

Andrea Henderson, executive director of the Arkansas Community College Association, presented the results of several studies to board members. Among the stats was a graph from Gallup Inc. that shows 17% of Americans have a great deal of confidence in higher education, a drop from 23% in 2018 and 28% in 2015. While 40% have "some" confidence, 22% reported "very little," a stark increase from 15% in 2018 and 9% in 2015.

Another stat from education firm EAB reveals 63% of community college students considered stopping college because of mental stress. EAB also states the number of high school juniors and seniors planning to attend fully online colleges has more than doubled since the coronavirus pandemic.

Henderson said one reason for the lack of trust in traditional campuses is that very few have changed over the years.

"One of the things we formed is the Futures Committee that's really asking the question of, what does the community college in 2033 look like?" Henderson said. "I think it's going to be very different from where it is now and how we thoughtfully plan for that college and create the college we want, rather than let these outside forces dictate where we are."

The Futures Committee includes representatives from different colleges, Henderson said. The group will work together to determine what the future of colleges should be and bring back recommendations to their schools.

Despite the troubling trends, SEARK's enrollment does not seem to have been negatively impacted.

College President Steven Bloomberg reported enrollment this semester stood at 961 as of Wednesday and is expected to rise. While that number is four fewer than at the end of the fall 2022 semester, the number of credit hours has increased by 7% from nine months ago to 9,406.

Bloomberg credited programs such as the second-chance Pell grant for prisoners, the introduction of athletics at the college and the school's Career Center in helping SEARK maintain its level of enrollment. But the decreasing confidence in higher education across demographics has him concerned about the potential for growth at the school.

"I think that's a concern because it should be a clear signal that our customers are having less and less trust that earning a higher education degree is going to get them somewhere," Bloomberg said. "The second part of that is cost. Part of trust is, based upon what somebody thinks they're getting, a return on their investment. So, I think in a lot of instances, there's 1.8 trillion dollars in student debt right now. That equates to a lot of people not having a high degree of confidence they're going to get a great job."

Community colleges, Bloomberg added, are "uniquely poised" to combat the problem, mainly through offering skilled training in fields such as SEARK's new bench jeweler program.

Bloomberg announced SEARK is working on developing a pilot classroom that would use artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) in anatomy and physiology classes starting in the fall of 2024.

Augmented reality and virtual reality are interchangeable terms, Bloomberg said, but they would put students in as real a situation as possible. For example, he said, students can watch a three-dimensional version of a body and study its composition or bone structure.

"I think that's the advantage, that you not only get to heighten the learning, but the younger generations are less interested in going to college," Bloomberg said. "Augmented and virtual realities, to some degree, are something they would be familiar with."

Using AI, AR or VR would not mean a loss in faculty in the near future, Bloomberg stressed; rather, the programs are seen as teaching tools.

Baseball exhibition

SEARK is beginning competition in baseball and softball this school year.

The baseball team will host Arkansas Baptist College in an exhibition at 6 tonight at Taylor Field, 1201 E. 16th Ave. The regular season typically begins in the spring.

Athletic director and men's basketball Coach Chad Kline reported about 20 of his players are enrolled on campus and taking a redshirt season to prepare for their program's launch in the 2024-25 season. Kline said a women's basketball coach will be hired by March for that team's start next school year.

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